Basil’s my best friend and a whole lot more

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Deborah Cornwall’s life changed completely when she suffered a horrendous spinal injury after falling when climbing which left her confined to a wheelchair.

She tells aasma Day how life still goes on after such a traumatic ordeal and how her dog Basil has helped boost her confidence to tackle anything in life.

Woman's best friend: Deborah and Basil

Woman's best friend: Deborah and Basil

WHEN ­Deborah Cornwall hears the phrases: “Chivalry is dead” and “A dog is a man’s best friend”, she shakes her head in disbelief with a huge smile on her face.

Not only does Deborah know a dog can be “a woman’s best friend”, too, her dog Basil is a true gentleman in his behaviour as he holds doors open for her, finds missing items for her and even empties the washing machine.

Deborah, 56, who lives in Hesketh Bank, near Preston, with husband John, says: “Basil inspires confidence in me and gives me a lot of practical help as well as being very loving.

“He is delightful and is very much a part of our family.

Deborah Cornwall from Hesketh Bank with Basil her Dog Aid

Deborah Cornwall from Hesketh Bank with Basil her Dog Aid

“When I am with Basil, people see me as a dog owner who happens to be in a wheelchair rather than as a disabled person.”

Deborah had always been a sports crazy and active young woman who loved all kinds of physical activity.

So when Deborah plummeted 40ft from a rock while climbing in North Wales and sustained a spinal injury which left her with no movement below her armpits, adapting to living life in a wheelchair was a huge step for her to take.

Deborah, who was working at a secondary school teaching PE, biology and outdoor pursuits at the time of the accident, explains: “I was climbing Tryfan in North Wales with a group from Fylde Mountaineering Club.

Deborah Cornwall and her dog Basil who helps her because she is in a wheelchair after a serious spinal injury

Deborah Cornwall and her dog Basil who helps her because she is in a wheelchair after a serious spinal injury

“Unfortunately, I came adrift from the rock and fell 40ft.

“It was a very bad fall. I bounced from ledge to ledge all the way down and ended up on one ledge.”

Deborah’s friends alerted Mountain Rescue but they were unable to move her as she was too badly injured, so they called the RAF who airlifted her to Bangor Hospital.

Deborah recalls: “I don’t remember anything at all about the fall itself.

“The brain works in marvellous ways. If something is too traumatic to re-live, it blanks it out completely.”

Deborah’s injuries included a collapsed lung, a broken bone in her neck, a broken bone in her back and a broken spinal cord.

Deborah says: “Broken bones heal and it was the break in my spinal cord that caused the lasting damage.

“The doctors told me I would never be able to sit up again or walk again – but they tell you this because they are covering themselves for the worst possible scenario as they don’t really know what will happen.

“Everyone’s spinal break is different.

“It is fairer for doctors to prepare patients for the worst by saying: ‘This is the bottom line – anything above that is a bonus.

“I remember being told by the doctors that I wouldn’t walk again and not believing it.

“I was determined to prove them wrong.”

Deborah did all her physiotherapy and occupational therapy and worked really hard and refused to give in to her prognosis.

But eventually, she realised that the damage that had been done was so severe that she wouldn’t be able to walk again.

Deborah remembers: “I did not accept that I wasn’t going to walk until I came home from hospital.

“I was practising with calipers and crutches, but the 
effort was so great for what little I achieved that I realised it was easier in a wheelchair.

“I had put so much effort into trying to get on my feet again that I was able to accept it was not the right thing to do and that I would be able to live a far more normal life in a wheelchair.

“I decided I wanted to live my life.

“I received my 56lb wheelchair and got to grips with learning to use my arms to do the work of my legs.

“The rehabilitation I received at the Spinal Injuries Centre in Southport was excellent.

“It involved lots of sport, which I loved, as well as learning how to do everyday things from a seated position.

Within a few weeks of being discharged from hospital, Deborah went to the English National Games and Irish 
National Games and competed in every sport she could including table tennis, fencing, swimming, basketball and wheelchair racing.

Deborah explains: “Sport had been such a big part of my life, I knew I could not give it up.”

Unfortunately for Deborah, while she was in intensive care, her teaching contract was torn up and she lost her job.

With the help of an occupational therapist at the spinal centre and teaching unions, Deborah managed to secure a position in a primary school in Freckleton as a teacher, but only on a temporary contract.

Deborah says: “I was a supernumerary teacher. This basically meant I would go into a school which did not have a vacancy and work alongside different members of staff.

“I then got another post at Lytham which was also supernumerary. However, all this time, I could not get promoted.

“My goal was to be accepted as a teacher in a wheelchair rather than as a disabled teacher.”

Deborah then secured a permanent teaching job at 
Anchorsholme and was promoted a couple of years later.

She then moved to Blackpool and stayed there for 14 years and was a Year 6 teacher with responsibility for PE, Science and Design Technology.

Deborah took early retirement about 12 years ago and now works as a peer support officer for the Spinal Injuries Association at the Southport Spinal Centre, where she supports newly injured patients and their families.

While Deborah was teaching, she competed for Great Britain in fencing and went to the Paralympic Games in South Korea in 1988.

She met John, who is now a retired BT engineer, in 1991 and the couple have been married for 22 years.

After retiring, Deborah got a Bichon Frise dog called Freddie who she helped train to help her with some tasks.

Sadly, Freddie died of cancer at the age of six-and-a-half. As Freddie had been so easy to train, Deborah looked for a similar dog to take over his legacy.

Deborah and John have had Basil, who is five-and-a-half months old and is half Bichon Frise and half cross miniature poodle, since he was a puppy of only a few weeks old.

Smiling, Deborah remembers: “We went to see this beautiful litter and Basil came waddling over. He chose us.

“It was love at first sight.”

When Deborah’s mother-in-law was out shopping, she saw a lady with an assistance dog and asked her about the charity that had trained her dog and was given a leaflet about Dog Aid.

Deborah called the charity up and was told they had a trainer who had just been accepted in her area.

Deborah enthuses: “The trainer Elaine Fairhurst is just the most amazing lady.

“She is brilliant and has had dogs all her life. We hit it off immediately.

“A one-hour slot a week soon turned into a three-hour slot. Elaine taught me the 
basics and I would write it down and go and do it with Basil.

“Basil helps me at home by opening and emptying the washing machine, holding and passing me items of clothing. He opens and closes doors for me, picks things up for me, brings me the post and gets shopping items I point to from low shelves.

“Basil also finds named items around the house such as my phone, my keys, his lead and my purse.

“If I lose something while we are out somewhere like the park, I say: ‘Basil go find’ and he will go and find it.”

Deborah says that Basil does far more than help her practically as having a dog helps break down barriers.

Deborah explains: “Basil gives me confidence as I am a naturally shy person.

“When I’m out in a wheelchair, people generally don’t speak to me or just talk to the person with me.

“It is because a lot of people don’t know what to say to people in a wheelchair. But when I am with Basil, they start off talking about him and we end up having a nice conversation.

“Having Basil there is a great boost. He breaks the ice when I meet people as he is such an adorable and handsome looking dog.

“When I am working at the hospital, Basil comes with me and, for the most part, he lies there watchful for when I need him.

“Basil also shows the newly injured patients how they could benefit from an assistance dog.

“Dog Aid has given me fantastic support through the training and beyond.

“By the time you are taken on by the charity, you have 
already bonded with your new best friend and are developing trust, respect and a sense of the joy of dogs as they play and learn.

“I was fortunate in having Elaine to show me the excitement and addictive love of learning alongside Basil.

“Our lessons were such fun as we transferred training skills and methods to be easily managed from my wheelchair.

“Basil inspires confidence in me enabling me to go to all manner of places safe in the knowledge that if I need assistance with the tasks he knows and performs so well, he will step up to the mark.

“Basil is so full of love and knows when I am not feeling well.

“He just comes and sits or lies by me to comfort me looking up with those lovely brown eyes I could drown in.

“Basil has opened up my eyes to looking at the world in a different light as he is always inquisitive and every day is a whole new adventure to be explored.

“He works steadily and confidently for me whether at home or in public.

“However, when I take 
off his jacket, he enjoys the freedom to meet and greet his doggy friends, chase a ball, dig on the beach or play in the waves.

“Yet if I need help, he will always come bounding towards me with his tail wagging.

“Basil gives me so much. He is such a happy, friendly, smart, loyal and helpful friend.

“I want people to know that there is life after such a traumatic injury, albeit a different life.

“Different doors open and it is all about adapting to your new life.”